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What many call the ultimate film noir, the murder mystery that is spoiled at the start, setting the stage for a retelling by our protagonist of the perfect crime, is unraveled before our eyes. Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity revolves around an insurance fraud murder that appears foolproof until the seams start to tear. Walter Neff, the top salesman two months in a row, falls in love with the young wife of an oilman, a woman looking for a way to leave her troubled marriage. Who better to get away with the perfect crime then a man that sees false claims avenged everyday? Their tracks must be covered and their guilt assuaged. However, being as our first scene shows Walter confessing to everything, we know the well-laid plans were unsuccessful. The trick to the film becomes how it all went down, how the puzzle pieces fell into place, and the power of a conscience, eating away at you until you can’t stand the pressure any longer.

It is not giving away anything to say that the two complete the task of killing Mr. Dietrichson, a businessman with a temper. The deed is orchestrated to look like he fell off a train, a venue for accidental death that comes with a special double indemnity clause, one that pays twice the cost of his recently purchased insurance of $50,000. That money is the impetus that pushes Neff over the top to help his new mistress. Phyllis Dietrichson is the damsel in distress, the nurse of her husband’s first wife that was naïve and heartbroken for her boss after his loss. She says it compelled her to stay with him in a union that never held any love. The chance arrival of Neff not only opens her eyes to the possibility of a clean break without any strings and actually some cash to boot, but also to a man she can spend time and possibly settle down with. It is a strange coincidence that the Dietrichson’s auto insurance was allowed to lapse, creating a house call, and a happy accident that the man called to visit was one as immoral as Walter. Right from the start he flirts and makes advances towards the woman he knows is married to his client. It’s not until the end that you start to consider whether none of it was by chance at all, but instead carefully planned out and manipulated from the first second.

Neff is played by Fred MacMurray—a perfect fit for the role of a shady salesman, unafraid to get his hands dirty. The confidence and swagger allow us to believe he can win over the girl as easily as he does. He is the kind of guy that can fool the world into thinking he is on the level, a man of intelligence and pride. His boss, Barton Keyes and he have a very close relationship, one based on mutual respect and admiration. Neff has them all fooled into believing he is a man of character, one Keyes would personally vouch for, and his initial balk at the offer to help kill Dietrichson shows that maybe he is. Maybe there is some semblance of humanity behind the quick-witted banter and devious smile, a moral compass that won’t allow him to cross the line. But greed and lust can tempt even a saint, let alone a guy like Neff, and it doesn’t take long for him to begin the blueprints for what will be the perfect crime; one that not even Keyes and his keen lie detector can spot. It is that question of virtue that will ultimately undo him, though, as the strong stomach he thought he had might not be indestructible.

The story revolves around MacMurray and as a result he is onscreen almost the entire time. He is our narrator and our entrance point into the proceedings. However, it is not a role that we necessarily relate to, nor even begin to feel sorry for to hope he gets away with the crime. Instead, knowing about his confession from the beginning, we sit down to watch his hubris shred his world to pieces. Each person is a cog to the tale at hand; it is the plotting of the film that takes center stage and top billing. The pieces are moved and we follow them through the twists and turns and revelations that change our preconceptions of each. No one is truly as they seem and they all have an ulterior motive just below the surface, propelling their actions and attempts for survival whether the other does or not. Our two criminals are selfish at heart, but until you watch the entire journey, you won’t know just how much.

While the acting is definitely dated and a product of its time, it doesn’t mean that it’s not good. Barbara Stanwyck plays MacMurray’s partner-in-crime Phyllis with equal panache. She holds her own in every situation, whether with her sharp tongue in some very funny back and forths or in her steely disposition when things get rough, it’s a part that needs to be strong and is. Barton Keyes is the role that sticks with you, though. Edward G. Robinson is fantastic as the cocky claims agent, self-proclaimed as never being wrong when his gut says something isn’t right. He delivers some of the best lines with such deadpan seriousness that you laugh even harder. The ego, cynicism, and attitude all add up to a man you have to respect, because under the tough exterior lies a man with heart. His dynamic with MacMurray is an interesting one, especially when seen through to the end. While they aren’t completely fleshed out, each character is a detailed piece to the intricate web of deceit on display. Surrogates for the story to be shown to the audience, we watch them not for who they are, but for what they will do.

Double Indemnity 8/10

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Welcome to the start of the sold out second season to Just Buffalo Literary Center’s Babel. Get out there and start roaming the internet and streets for scalpers because it is a series you won’t want to miss. If you thought last year’s inaugural line-up was good, you can’t fathom the heavyweights on this season’s bill. With Chinua Achebe kicking us off—his novel Things Fall Apart being a brilliant piece of literature—the ball got rolling, ushering in much of the same, but some brand new features as well. Chief among those extras include screenings of a mini-series based upon Chebe’s novel and even one of The English Patient on Oct 25 to coincide with Michael Ondaatje’s lecture that week.

From the introduction it is as though we will be seeing this outspoken troublemaker in the literary world and not the soft, amiable man with a keen sense of humor that came before us. The story of a much known comment towards writer Joseph Conrad and his book Heart of Darkness, the jist being that Achebe called him a racist, supposedly hangs over each of his public appearances. That aspect can be looked upon sadly if not for the gem of a quote we got as a result of the memory. Basically, Achebe was commenting on the fact that Conrad’s novel spoke of Africans having no language, just a series of animal sounds. This African-born writer of newly converted Christian parents took great offense because he knew how eloquent his people were. I don’t think any line can even come close to what he said tonight to describe what the Babel series is trying to teach us. He said, “The worst thing you can do to another human being is take away his power of speech.” Truer words were never spoken. Babel is here to show us the insights of international orators, storytellers of exotic cultures and backgrounds, bringing us the world we may never see outside of the printed page. Achebe later continues speaking about humanity’s access to art, that “Thinking you’re the only one in existence is not a crime, but if you act it…that’s another matter. There is no excuse to not know our neighbors.”

After a wonderful concert by Baba Ramon Sila (spelling?) as the audience filed in, Achebe treated us to some poetry, a passage from the novel he was there to speak about, and a special treat before the question and answer period. He helped clarify some Igbo cultural aspects from Things Fall Apart—for instance the importance of the kola nut—as well as showing how important speech was in the novel. A man that says he deliberately decided he would write differently from those which he read, the anecdotes he told along with the passages were just as intriguing. A couple treats being the reading of the poem “The Explorer”, one he used to never read and thought by a colleague to speak of the accident that left him without use of his legs, when in fact it was written before then, and of a work he wrote for a fallen friend Christopher Okigbo. The beauty of this was that after reading the translation in English he treated us with the original Igbo version, his native language yet rarely the one he uses to write with.

So, all in all, it was a banner opening to this year’s series. A minor audio problem at the start caused some trouble, (and honestly people, they know the mikes aren’t working so stop yelling and interrupting the speaker, it’s not his fault and you’re being rude), but otherwise no glitches. Books were signed at the end and there were no troubles exiting the premises despite the sold out crowd. Can’t wait to see the next three installments.

Michael Ondaatje – The English Patient – Oct 29, 2008
Markane Satrapi – Persepolis – April 1, 2009
Isabel Allende – The House of Spirits – April 17, 2009

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Eagle Eye seems to have had a very interesting conception. When checking the IMDB credits, you can see four names officially down as writers on the project, one that it appears has been in Steven Speilberg’s wheelhouse for quite some time, waiting patiently for technology to do it justice. However, all the buzz and press are praising wunderkinds Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman as the screenwriters. After watching the high-action, high-octane car chases and explosions, I am one to believe the duo behind Transformers are pulling the strings. Whether it’s an original vision of the subject or rewrites on an existing draft, who knows? The fact of the matter is that this film contains a lot of excitement, adrenaline-pumping setpieces, and pedal to the floor pacing. One thing that won’t happen—whether you buy into the Big Brother meets HAL plot or not—is boredom. That is an impossibility.

The plot is very well orchestrated; good job whoever should receive the credit. Right from the start we are shown our lead character Jerry Shaw’s penchant for slacking and living day-to-day without the means to even pay his rent. He is the epitome of the new action hero, an under-motivated, intelligent dropout just waiting, subconsciously, to be given the chance to matter. His twin brother, a military/Air Force man, has just passed away and after burying him, Jerry gets caught up in a web of governmental and terrorist intrigue. Framed as an enemy of the state, our lead, the always-entertaining Shia LaBeouf, must follow the instructions being relayed to him via a woman’s voice on his phone. The voice sets his escape into motion and—now a fugitive of the law—he meets up with many other people being told what to do by her. Michelle Monaghan’s role, Rachel, is the most embedded of these strangers, not blackmailed by jailtime or death, but instead by the murder of her son. Both Rachel and Jerry become caught in a life-or-death situation that is way too big for them, or even us, to comprehend.

Now I don’t mean to make it sound that I thought the film was convoluted or anything, it’s actually pretty well plotted. Holes seem plugged up and everything that gets set into motion at the start comes to play later on. Nothing shown onscreen is wasted, it all plays a factor in the outcome. The general clichés are all present of course; this is a Hollywood action film after all. Besides LaBeouf’s perfect hero evolution, we get the single mom, strong-willed and capable of anything when pushed against a wall; the hard, by-the-book cop who gets so involved in the case that he begins to uncover the conspiracy and risk maybe trying to intervene by helping those which appear to be the enemy; and the politician, capable of making the tough decisions, but never willing to let the power corrupt his morals, despite what could be his if all goes to plan. The beauty of the film is that those stereotypes are integral pieces to the puzzle. The psychology of their roles makes what needs to happen occur. Just as the super-computer reads everyone’s file and body language to predict their movements, the script utilizes their inherent traits to allow the story to make sense in a logical way.

What really helps you take your mind off of the contrivances, though, is the non-stop action. There are so many car chases, and each one sprinkled with explosions and surprises. I give credit to D.J. Caruso for helming this thing to such success being that he’s never been behind the camera on an actioner like it. Director of the criminally underrated Salton Sea and last year’s LaBeouf vehicle Disturbia, I wasn’t sure how he’d handle the choreography and speed necessary. The guy did well, especially being that he could handle the quieter moments that helped bridge the chaos. Much of the film is seen through the lenses of technology, whether that be security cameras, voices over cell phones, radar footprints shown digitally over a map of the US, or even the sound vibrations from a cup of coffee. It all adds to the futuristic feel and I’m sure will cause many people to gasp at the possibility we may all be under the same surveillance in the real world as we sit watching.

The cast also works with the script, fleshing out the characters and making the unbelievable seem like it could happen. LaBeouf has a little scruff, trying to make him look older, but it’s really just his everyman look and witty retorts that make him successful. Ever since “Even Stevens”, the kid is just likeable. Monaghan adds another solid role to her expanding resume, playing the desperate mother on a journey to save her son. A puppet to the plan underlying the entire film, she goes though a wide range of emotions and pulls them all off. The rest of the ensemble includes some very familiar faces: Anthony Mackie, Rosario Dawson, Michael Chiklis, and Ethan Embry (What’s with his small serious cameos lately? This guy used to be groomed to take on the small comedy world). The most notable supporting role comes from Billy Bob Thornton, actually getting a part that doesn’t necessitate his usual surly and vulgar disposition of late. It’s a very human role that evolves a great deal while also adding some brilliant comic relief from his cynical sarcasm.

With all the praise I have for Eagle Eye and all the fun, it does fall into the Hollywood trap. The final five minutes or so are so tacked on and unnecessary they only make you think how great a bittersweet ending could have been. Hey, these guys need to recoup some money off the decent chunk of change laid down to finance this thing, so they must cater to the general public. Sometimes that means excising the proper conclusion, one fitting in tone and structure, in order to show a watered down feel-good smile-inducing epilogue after it. We can’t all be perfect.

Eagle Eye 8/10

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photography:
[1] Shia LaBeouf stars as Jerry Shaw and Michelle Monaghan stars as Rachel Holloman in DreamWorks SKG’s Eagle Eye (2008). Photo credit by Ralph Nelson. Copyright © DreamWorks SKG. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Billy Bob Thornton stars as Agent Morgan in DreamWorks SKG’s Eagle Eye (2008) Copyright © DreamWorks SKG. All Rights Reserved.

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Last year’s No Country for Old Men showed the world that the Coen Brothers could make a great film. After a pair of not-so-good flicks, no one really cared about them, two creative geniuses that crafted some of cinema’s best black comedies of the 80s and 90s. Then came the Oscar winner, showing an attention to detail and precision pacing worthy of the accolades if not, in my opinion, the best film of the year. But it was so serious and unlike anything they had ever done; yes it had some very subtle laughs, however, it was a drama from start to finish. So, when the trailers for Burn After Reading hit the airwaves, I wasn’t quite sure what I would get. It looked as though the Coens of yesteryear were truly back, mixing their quirky brand of wit with an underlying plot dealing with crime and blackmail. Did those thoughts come to fruition? You bet they did. This ranks with Miller’s Crossing and Fargo as one of their best dark comedies. The runtime may drag a bit at times, but I think that may actually enhance the humor, feigning suspense and hitting us over the head with laughter.

It’s a very smart script with some really fantastic performances, many of which are somewhat against type for the actor. Richard Jenkins is possibly the most obvious, playing a gym manager with no backbone whatsoever. He exudes fear, curling up into a ball when the slightest inclination of danger rears its head; a definite departure for someone used to playing strong, intelligent men. There is also Brad Pitt as a gym employee and co-mastermind behind the insane blackmail plot that the film revolves around. The filmmakers do nothing to make him look any younger than his actual age, and yet they have him act as though he is a child. Constantly dancing and jumping and being absolutely giddy with excitement, he is a little boy doing rather than thinking. The little things like complaining when he must wear a suit, or his juvenile disappointment when his reward demands go unresolved, or even his contemptuous, pompous laugh when his bike is demeaned—“You think that’s a Schwinn?”—only makes the role funnier because Pitt is almost always the calm collected one in films.

Then there is George Clooney, who actually carries the film, something you wouldn’t think from the trailers. When the credits began and he was first billed, I was a tad confused. I had thought he would be a small role compared to the trio of Pitt, Frances McDormand, and John Malkovich when in fact he is the common factor linking them all. Clooney is a mess of nerves, constantly paranoid, a security Marshall in the treasury department who seemingly does no work. If the CIA operatives that we cut to every now and then didn’t mention his job, I would have believed he made it up—the guy just walks around with his gun, (never fired in 20 years on the job…hmmm, that’s not a bit of foreshadowing is it?), has relations with multiple women, and spends his time welding something very intriguing in his basement. Watching him off-kilter and not fully composed is a welcome change of pace in his canon of work, while being par for the course here as no one really has it all together.

It is the slight imbecility of each character that allows the story to push forward. As J.K. Simmons’ CIA Chief constantly agrees with, everyone is confused about what’s going on. These people are all out of their leagues, causing unnecessary trouble, bringing the Russians into the fold, and leaving dead bodies. One of the best lines is when he utters, “well we learned something here, not to do that again … whatever it was we did.” Everything happens due to the random forgetfulness of a divorce lawyer’s secretary. She accidentally leaves a disc at the gym containing the memoirs of her boss’s client’s husband, a former CIA analyst (Malkovich in a nicely dangerous and angry role). The utter stupidity of the morons working at Hardbodies cause a chain reaction that unravels the lies and deceit running rampant through everyone’s sordid and sad lives. They are all self-absorbed in their own pursuits of happiness that everything becomes excellent fodder for intelligent comedy, not needing to rely on physical humor. Although those few instances of it, Malkovich punching Pitt for one, do succeed.

To speak about the multiple intertwining of players would ruin some of the surprises that occur, but let’s just say everyone ends up meeting the others at some point, either face to face or by reputation. A comedy of errors, the lack of smarts for most roles rivals that in Raising Arizona, but the plot here is so much more detailed. It is a story that could have been taken seriously, but because of the insanity of what goes on, the confusion for which everything hinges on, the comedy bent is the only way to go. There are some surprises, Clooney’s invention and of course his encounter with Pitt, but mostly it is the waiting to see how far the farce will go that keeps you in the seat. We as the audience know that it all depends on a disc with unimportant information, so the real fun comes from seeing if everyone in the film will realize it as well. David Rasche and Simmons’ brief interludes, (I really love the CIA scenes with the echoing footsteps and stark white walls), are the glue that keeps everything sane. Those two trying to wrap their heads around what is happening may be read into as a commentary on the stupidity of our government, but to me, because they just can’t fathom what is going on around them—not because they don’t know the details, they just can’t comprehend the ultimate goal—it is more a comment on how stupid civilians are. Trying to grab cash anyway they can, people will do anything, especially things without any sound judgment at all.

Burn After Reading 8/10

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photography:
[1] Brad Pitt stars in Joel and Ethan Coen’s dark spy-comedy BURN AFTER READING, a Focus Features release. Photo: Macall Polay
[2] George Clooney (left) and Frances McDormand (right) star in Joel and Ethan Coen’s dark spy-comedy BURN AFTER READING, a Focus Features release. Photo: Macall Polay

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It took almost a decade for a second movie to come out from the literary source that is Chuck Palahniuk. David Fincher owned Fight Club, making it a cinematic wonder, enhancing the novel and becoming a wonderful companion to it. Rumors swirled afterwards about all his other stories being optioned for film translation, but after 9-11 halted Survivor’s chances and Invisible Monsters’ progress ended, it didn’t seem good. But here comes 2008, with an unlikely savior in Clark Gregg, and all of a sudden we have Choke in cinematic glory to bring the author back into the spotlight. I love his books and all of them have a pop culture, post-modern feel showing sensibilities that can succeed on the big screen. Is Gregg the optimum choice to help the cause? Possibly not, but this is a very narrative driven story without the flash and flair of other novels, so his inexperience helming a film isn’t overtly noticeable. While it is not as good as the book—how many actually are—this film keeps the tone and essence intact, bringing to life the words on the page. It’s subtle and subversive and kept me entertained throughout.

Gregg has been in Hollywood for a while now, a familiar face to David Mamet fans, and for all you kiddies, an actor in Ironman. The role he gives himself here is a good one, the stickler boss of the colonial theme park that our leads are employed at. It’s a thankless role and definitely the straightman of the ensemble; however, it is his directing that is really put on display. He doesn’t try to go beyond his limits and I commend him for it. Single-handedly saving the world from possibly going Palahniuk adaptation-less forever, I have nothing but praise for the man. There are some camera tricks utilized, most obviously the quick cuts between our lead Victor Mancini’s sex-addicted visions of every woman being naked to their fully clothed reality, but it’s more or less a strict, linear narrative. I do have to mention the final shot, which carries on as the credits play, a long take of two leads making out. In extreme close-up, the highly personal nature of what is displayed leaves you somewhat uncomfortable due to the length, but also happy at the idea of these two partaking in the action. It’s the boldest stroke Gregg makes and, being the last thing we see, the strongest most memorable moment for me.

It’s all a comedy from start to finish, but one laced in good writing and subtlety. There are no real laugh-out-loud moments, except perhaps the revelation of a man being blind, just a consistent journey of sarcasm, heartfelt humor, and genuine witty banter. Victor, played perfectly by Sam Rockwell, really breathing life into the character as I envisioned him when reading the book, is a man that goes to restaurants and deliberately chokes so that some unsuspecting Good Samaritan can save him. These people now have a bond with him, feeling responsible for his life and in effect send him gifts and money whenever asked or on the anniversary of their fateful encounter. As one eyewitness’s account says, her son was about to be divorced until his sense of bravery at saving Victor made his wife fall in love all over again. This kind of thing is a common trend with our lead; his uncanny ability to be devious and evil yet always have the outcome end up being generous and profound to those he is wronging. No wonder the guy becomes glued to the possibility he may be the second coming of Christ—believe me, it’s actually a plot thread, and one that holds the film together.

Rockwell’s manic overabundance of life becomes a whirlwind, sleeping with random women at every turn, hanging out with his masturbation-obsessed best friend (Brad William Henke who hopefully will start getting more work after this), angering his boss by using 20th century objects in a colonial environment, and visiting his mother, who is suffering from dementia, that believes he is her old deceased lawyers. Only Palahniuk’s warped mind could come up with this stuff, let alone tie it all together into a coherent plot that is interesting to follow through to its conclusion. A burgeoning relationship with a young nurse at the home, (Kelly Macdonald trying to hide her Scottish accent for who knows what reason), adds some conflict and space for Victor to finally seek help for himself and begin step four of the sex-addict program. Having a lifetime of pain brought on by the one person he loved, Anjelica Huston as his mother, keeps him closed off to the world, making it strange for him when he finally finds someone he can open himself to.

There is so much going on, it’d be tough to talk about without either ruining the story or ruining the joke’s setup. Choke is definitely not for everyone, the humor is probably too risqué for some and the subject matter too eccentric and modern for others. Palahniuk, who has a nice background cameo at the end, uses thinly veiled satire to bring us into his surreal interpretations of reality and be able to find ourselves living there. It is definitely one of his smallest scale novels, as far as craziness goes, but also one of his most accessible. For that reason, and because Gregg deftly adapted it with a respect to the source material, we have a resounding success. Hopefully allowing us to be brought back into his world of miscreants and fiends with a piece such as this will mean the more out-there stories will finally find their way to Hollywood. Scratch that. How about to a nice indie company that will do it right?

Choke 8/10

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photography:
[1] L-R: Brad William Henke and Sam Rockwell. Photo Credit: Jessica Miglio
[2] Anjelica Huston Photo Credit: Jessica Miglio
© 2008, Courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

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If you wanted to see a face of shock, you should have seen me when I found out the new Samuel L. Jackson vehicle Lakeview Terrace was directed by Neil LaBute. When I think of the man I can only conjure images of the fantastic Shape of Things and In the Company of Men, and I haven’t even seen that one yet. To watch the trailer for this seemingly generic, racially motivated clash between neighbors just made me shake my head in shame. If it weren’t for the cast—or the free screening pass—I probably would have completely passed the film up, without a second thought. So there I was, sitting in a packed theatre, in a somewhat foul mood as security made us check our phones at the door, taking mine despite the fact it has no camera, waiting past the advertised start time. And then came Jackson onscreen, waking up from sleep, fixing a photo on the nightstand of he and his wife, slowly moving downstairs to meet his children. This is a parent of morals and intelligence, telling his son to remove a Kobe Bryant jersey because of what the man stands for and constantly correcting his daughter’s English so as not to have her sound like an ignorant girl from the streets. Watching him fold laundry on the couch next definitely woke me up; maybe I wasn’t going to get what I thought I would after all.

We are introduced to this man, Abel Turner, a cop and single father, trying to raise his children right. A man who worked double shifts and extra security jobs in order to move his family outside of the South Central neighborhood he grew up in. Sure he is rough around the edges, but he is a man of principle and it seems one that loves his children and would do anything to protect them. This buildup puts an entirely different spin on how he reacts to the moving in of Lisa and Chris Mattson, (Kerry Washington and Patrick Wilson respectively), an interracial couple buying their first house. Where the trailer just shows racial tension and disgust, the actual film shows someone trying his hardest to get along, but truthfully not being shown very much in the way of friendly neighbor from the newcomers. Between making love in their pool, within eyesight of Jackson’s house and the children looking out the window; Wilson throwing his cigarette butts into his yard so as to fool his wife; and a little hostility early on, one might see where Turner had a point. Is the man a little wrong in the head, though? For sure. His intimidating demeanor is not helped by the little tests he performs, including pretending to hold Wilson up in his car with a flashlight.

There really isn’t much to the story besides the escalating tensions mounting between the Mattsons and Turner. What at first can be construed as getting off on the wrong foot soon grows to borderline hatred with a touch of malicious intent. The threats fly and retribution is begun—you shine a flood light into my bedroom, I’ll do the same. Not too long after do the children become involved, acting out against their father wanting to get to know the neighbors while he tries to shield them away. While I did not anticipate the high jump Jackson’s games take towards the end, stopping any fun that might have been mixed with the not so subtle hints for the newly weds to move, going straight into thug territory, I was not surprised. The introduction of a character early on has no relevance if the story didn’t evolve to the point it does at the end and it’s convenient events like this that threaten to ruin what is working.

The story is very neatly and meticulously put together, but maybe a bit too well done. An obstacle looming heavy over the whole film is the forest fire slowly eating its way closer and closer to the street that the action takes place on. Having such a backdrop always in mind screams artifice and truthfully does take you out of the movie a bit. Yes, they are in California, but instead of introducing the fire so early on, (I believe it’s the first thing we hear on Jackson’s alarm clock radio), they could have made it a problem with subtlety. We know the dangers of the area and would believe a fire starting; we don’t need to be hand-held through the ordeal. Also, there is an underlying duplicity that crops up often. Jackson’s partner is living with decisions on whether to try for a promotion and move his family to a safer neighborhood, thus allowing us to find out Abel Turner’s similar predicament twenty years earlier. There is also the story of what happened to his wife, a tale whose explanation is revelatory to his feelings towards the Mattsons, I won’t say more, but you will see the mirroring for yourself when viewing. Heck, even Washington’s father is conveniently made to share similarities to Jackson, adding yet another level to Wilson’s pile of insecurities.

When you do look at Lakeview Terrace from afar, you will see some very intriguing instances of race, social status, and other barriers coming to the forefront as catalysts for the strained relationships cropping up. These are the kind of issues you expect LaBute to grasp ahold of and do something inventive and provocative. There are moments, don’t get me wrong, but in the end, this is a studio picture and I’m sure his hands were tied just enough to keep it all reined in. However, there is that edge to it, sometimes more pronounced than others, along with a great performance from Jackson, as well as the others. With a fitting conclusion and overall entertaining suspense, I’d say LaBute has found a happy medium between Hollywood-fare and his indie/stage sensibilities. I just hope he goes full indie next time, because that is where he truly excels.

Lakeview Terrace 6/10

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photography:
[1] Samuel L. Jackson as Abel Turner. Photo: Chuck Zlotnick
[2] (l-r) Patrick Wilson as Chris Mattson, Kerry Washington as Lisa Mattson. Photo: Chuck Zlotnick
© 2007 Screen Gems, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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Call me a sucker, but I highly enjoy films about the criminal underworld of a city like Brooklyn; all those seedy little details that you can imagine actually happening right before your eyes. I was a fan of the short-lived tv series “The Black Donnellys” and really like The Yards and to a lesser extent Sleepers. The new film The Narrows plays with the same types of storylines as these other works, namely centering on one young man, trying to stay good while having one foot in with the mob. Mike Manadoro is that kid, a budding photographer who can’t afford the college tuition necessary to hone his skills. His father refuses to let him take loans and so it’s either give up his dream, one that the professor he received a partial scholarship from says is accessible, or ask for some more work from Tony, the kingpin of the neighborhood. Already driving and partaking in small menial tasks, the ability to earn more means doing things a bit more dangerous, a job that his father says means he is now Tony’s property, to do with what he will. The rest of the film deals with Mike juggling the life he wants with the life he has, one not quite up to par, but needed in order for the future to come to him.

One could argue that this film doesn’t offer anything new to the genre, and I would agree. However, just because it uses the same old standards as others that came before it, does not mean it fails. You can only do so much with this type of story, but as long as the acting works and the plot evolves, I’d be hard-pressed to find one I didn’t at least enjoy. The Narrows falls into this category, it’s a solid movie that may not contain a “wow” factor, but makes up for it with consistent enjoyment. A lot of characters come into play and they all add a little bit to the outcome. This is a tough neighborhood in close proximity with places a bit more affluent then it. Mike is therefore allowed to jump from one world to the other, showing what he could have and what he knows he must come home to. You see, no matter how much he wants to get out, he can’t leave his family and friends behind. It’s a fine line and Mike isn’t afraid to stick by those he loves, whether it’s the smart play or not.

Kevin Zegers plays our lead nicely. He has the look and physique of a thug, but the soft-spoken intellect of someone with bigger dreams ahead of his current situation. There are multiple instances where he must choose between worlds and those choices never seem forced. Scheming for his friends, Zegers has a tendency to put them in front of himself. It’s the way of the street and definitely prevalent here. Already in a relationship, he meets a fellow photographer in Kathy at school. She is his conduit to a better life, an apartment in the city that appears to be owned by a millionaire, the unconditional love of an outsider willing to be with him for who he is and not where he’s from, and a person clean from the world back home. Surprisingly, Sophia Bush does well in the role. She is a pawn to the story, but adds enough emotion and feeling to believe in the relationship and why Mike would risk everything for her.

The real interesting characters come from the little operation in Brooklyn. Tony, at the top of the food chain, is played by Titus Welliver, a man who finally seems to be breaking into Hollywood after a nice run with “Deadwood”. Welliver works well as the tough guy, steely eyed and always deadly serious, wiping a laugh away quick so as to never let down his guard. Then there is Michael Kelly’s Danny, a Born Again Christian working for the mob. He adds an intriguing dynamic to the group, fodder for jokes and also a sense of morals. Recently returned from war, Nicky Shades, rounds out the main players. Always someone Mike looked up to as a kid, Nicky comes home a different man. The war took away his ability to play football, sending him into a depression that only the drugs can help quell. With a soon to be wife and child on the way, Mike can see a man that has a future, but is just throwing it all away. Eddie Cahill embodies this man, a figure for our lead to watch and see how much he has to live for. Watching the self-destructing nature of someone with similar ideals, but not as many smarts, can only start to keep him from the same path.

Films like The Narrows always follow a similar formula, and nothing is different here. A job will go wrong, people will be accused, someone will try and take out the boss only to be burned himself, and our lead will meet many situations to test his strength and will to survive. I guess the truth of the matter is, I bought into it all. This is really the bottom line—you either accept the clichés or you don’t. I really enjoyed the journey all the way through, even when the story decides to surprise us. That surprise involves Mike’s father, another eccentrically sound performance from Vincent D’Onofrio. The role really works towards the conclusion nicely, although I do think the way it all turns out is a bit too much, a little bit of a departure to all that came before it; maybe not in terms of story, but definitely in tone. While the film does have comic instances, the hammy, jokey end is a strange pace change that barely keeps on the rails for me. Otherwise, though, you can’t ask for much more in a Brooklyn street crime film—it’s a sure and steady ride.

The Narrows 7/10

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photography:
courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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Michael Winterbottom is a director that never sticks to one genre and never compromises his vision. From the well-received music bio-pic 24 Hour Party People, to a meta-comedy in A Cock and Bull Story, to a sexually graphic concert narrative in 9 Songs, to the story of Daniel Pearl’s murder in the Middle East with A Mighty Heart, he won’t shy from controversial subject matter. That makes his new film, Genova, that much more interesting because it is on all accounts a very safe and simple tale when compared to the others. There really isn’t anything he is trying to say here, just him telling a story about how a family deals with the loss of their wife/mother. Joe, Mary, and Kelly all feel the death strongly and cope in different ways. Eventually moving to Italy, Joe hopes the change of scenery will help them move on with their lives. Sometimes, though, especially when dealing with a tragedy as they are, it is not that simple.

Colin Firth plays Joe with a wonderful sense of restraint. He is saddened by the turn of events, but knows he must stay strong for his two daughters, especially Mary who holds herself responsible for her mother’s death. Reconnecting with an old friend from college, Catherine Keener, he discovers a job opening teaching at a college in Genova, Italy. With this guide helping him along, he decides to take the girls with him and hope a little European air will alleviate some of the pain of the past, a way to look towards the future. The locale is an interesting one, though, always seeming somewhat shady yet affluent at the same time. The beach is definitely a plus for the girls, but the long walks through strange neighborhoods, not knowing the language, is intimidating to say the least.

Joe finds that he isn’t quite sure what he wants. He knows that Keener’s character is there for him, seemingly to us that she wants a relationship, and also meets a student that appears interested as well. This possibility of a young affair strikes him as exciting and while beginning rather innocently, soon escalates to the point where he goes on a date, leaving his older daughter alone to watch her sister. A dangerous prospect for sure, especially knowing what the audience does about the volatile relationship the two have. Mary blames herself for their mother’s death and Kelly is not one to correct her; she feels the only reason they are where they are is due to her sister.

Over the course of the story, Kelly, played by Willa Holland, descends into a circle of people who stay out late, do drugs, and party. Being made to move against her will, she decides to rebel a bit, finding a local boy to become her lover and pretty much be a selfish brat while the rest of the family mourns. Rather than join them, Kelly feels all she needs is to forget about the whole ordeal, have fun and not think about it. This detachment to the family doesn’t make life easier for Mary, a great performance by Perla Haney-Jardine, as she has no one to talk to. Her father is working and dating and her sister abandons her at piano lessons in order to continue her sexual escapades, using threats to keep it secret from their father. The only person she has to talk with is her deceased mother for whom she begins seeing. This ghost leads Mary around Genova, causing trouble and scares along the way, but also conveniently allowing for circumstances to come up, those that have the potential to mend all the broken fences.

It is this fact that bothered me about the film. At its core is a very emotive tale of loss, coping, and redemption, but while the beginning two thirds portray this, the final act decides to tie all loose ends up as easily as possible, sending young Mary on a journey with her dead mother, carefully orchestrated to make the rest of the characters come find her. The writing is on the wall throughout, you feel it’s just a matter of time before Kelly’s new friends show they aren’t as great as she thinks, the genial bond between Keener and Firth becomes strained, and the father slowly drifts from his daughters, unaware what’s going on with them because he is too busy trying to get over his own grief. Some of the best scenes come when Firth enters Haney-Jardine’s room to console her after a nightmare or vision ends with her mother leaving once again. It is heartbreaking to watch at times, however, the way it all comes together subverts that power, showing how manufactured scripts can be. I understand the desire for cyclical narratives, starting the film with a car crash and ending it with one, but stuff like that is so obvious that the artifice takes you away from the craft onscreen. The acting and characters are all fully fleshed-out beings—truly remarkable across the board—it is just a shame that the story doesn’t stay as consistent as them, to allow for a profound conclusion rather than the easy one laid before us.

Genova 7/10

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[1] Colin Firth & Perla Haney-Jardine in Michael Winterbottom’s GENOVA. Still by Phil Fisk
[2] Willa Holland in Michael Winterbottom’s GENOVA. Still by Phil Fisk

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It’s a fascinating thought I had going into Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. I began to worry that a straightforward tale may not be playing to the director’s strengths. The reason being that his masterpiece The Fountain was still in my head and since he didn’t have writing credit here, my trepidation increased. It wasn’t until the end credits that I recalled Requiem For a Dream being an adaptation and his debut π being pretty grounded in reality despite its surrealistic tendencies. So in actuality, the guy had only made one non-straightforward film, and all to immense success, at least in my eyes. Whether his planned Robocop retooling can be a victory, (I think his visual style should do it justice), remains to be seen, but as of now, the guy is four for four. Not only does Mickey Rourke own the screen every second of the movie, but Aronofsky lends just the right amount of his stamp on the proceedings, creating a definite top ten inclusion for my end of year list and, by far, the best film I had seen at the festival.

The story deals with an aging professional wrestler, a man that was a champion and idol in his heyday. Beaten and battered, Randy “The Ram” Robinson finds himself doing small venues on the weekends, trying to relive past glory and entertain the fans still out there, while working at a grocery store during the week. Not having stopped with the working out, he also continues to take any drugs necessary to keep his physique as well as numb the pain of what ails him. Money is tight, the camps’ landlord locks him out of his trailer; family is non-existent, his daughter wants nothing to do with him; and the only real human interaction he has is from a stripper he pays more for an ear to talk than for the lapdances. The Ram remembers the past—an old action figure of himself stands on his van’s dash—and does his best to keep it in the front of his mind. A wonderful example comes when he yells out his trailer to a neighborhood kid; asking if wants to play Nintendo. The two play a boxing game, Robinson of course as himself, while the boy talks about the new Call of Duty game coming out on Playstations, et al. This gap in culture and reality never hits him hard, though, as he loves the decade that built him too much.

The Ram and Cassidy, (Marisa Tomei’s stripper, showing off her sexy body once more this year—has nudity become a prerequisite for casting her now?), are definitely kindred spirits, coming out of that decade. Both are doing what they need to survive, she dancing to support her son and he working at a shopping mart to stay afloat enough to waste weekends on the local wrestling circuit, hanging with the guys and doing what he loves. Only these two would get overly excited when the 80s tunes start blaring out a bar’s speakers, recalling a time when life must have been so much easier.

It is a heart attack that finally wakes Rourke’s character from his long slumber of indifference and living without consequence. With a masterstroke of subtlety, Aronofsky begins to show his hand at this point. We begin to look around the locales The Ram visits. An autograph session is one example, rather than like the beginning, watching two enthusiastic fans get his signature and talk to each other about how nice a guy he is, we now watch a pan across the room at those selling their John Hancocks. Some of the wrestlers are older than he, and others not, however, they all have one thing in common—a slow dismantling of their bodies from the hard, fast lifestyle they lived. We see canes, wheelchairs, sorrow, and pain etched in every face. The Ram finally realizes the risk he takes each time he steps in that ring and decides to retool his life for the future by attempting to rekindle a relationship with his daughter, a nice performance from Evan Rachel Wood; maybe start one with Cassidy, for real, not at the club; and take an invested interest at making a career out of the grocery store gig.

Robinson is willing to leave it all behind. The transition culminates into a scene with the camera following closely behind him as he walks through the backroom before entering the deli counter. With music playing and cheering slowly reaching a crescendo, the comparison to his entrance at a wrestling match is both fitting and ironic. This then leads to a nice scene as he begins to get comfortable behind the counter, riffing with the customers and even pretending to quarterback a container of salad to a shopper. It’s a fun moment and helps establish a feeling that it could all be working out for him.

The story is not that simple, though. What really hit home for me was the absolute frankness and unsentimental tone The Wrestler truly portrays. A great line comes with Rourke in the ring, about to fight, despite someone telling him he doesn’t have to get hurt; he can stop. The Ram just looks back and says, “I only get hurt out there,” pointing to the outside world. That ring is his safe haven, the one place he is loved unconditionally by fans and peers alike, the ropes serving as walls against the prejudices, looks, and pain awaiting him out in the real world. He is a wrestler to the bone, expressed earlier with a viciously orchestrated battle involving tables, staple guns, and barbed wire. The entire film is really just a slice of life following The Ram around as he figures out the path that works for him. Sometimes the costume is the real person—just ask Superman—and to go back to being Robin Randinski becomes too much to handle.

It’s a performance worthy of award and a tale succeeding on all counts. Aronofsky is not shy to work some magic, nor afraid to let the story take control when necessary. All the glamour and celebrity is there along with the flip side of the coin when gravity kicks in. An amazing experience to be sure, you won’t want to get up at its conclusion, (the wonderful new Bruce Springsteen song definitely helps this fact), instead staying to contemplate what has happened and what might happen, as the filmmakers throw a question mark at you. Whether Randy “The Ram” Robinson is content, we will never know, but one thing we do is that he lived without regret. It may not have all turned out the way he wanted, but in the end he a man that will not, that cannot, change. And he doesn’t have to.

The Wrestler 10/10

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courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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It is going to be very hard to delineate the film Sexykiller from the experience I had seeing it. My screening at the Toronto International Film Festival was the first time I had ever been to a Midnight Madness event. The atmosphere was fantastic, the theatre filled with kindred souls, all ready to have a blast and check their brains at the door. While we waited in line for seats, a couple people dressed in makeup as zombies walked by, talking to themselves about where they should go, and do the people in charge know that the zombies had arrived? Right then we knew we were in store for a good time, they had hired “actors” to pose with the director and lead actress on the red carpet, adding that much more fun to the evening. Before the film started rolling, director Miguel Martí and actress Macarena Gómez took the stage and introduced their work. Definitely excited to see the finished product for the first time with an audience, Martí was beyond words, as far as his grasp of English went, reverting to Spanish with a brief translation from Gómez. The stage was set and the fun was just starting.

Our entrance to the film is of course inside a women’s locker room. How much more clichéd can you get for a horror/slasher flick? There is gratuitous nudity, some funny quips, and did I mention gratuitous nudity? When it appears all the girls have left, in comes someone dressed up like the killer from Scream. He goes through the locker room looking for naked girls, waving his knife around until he finds Gómez’s Barbara screaming and running away. It all starts here as we discover the “killer” is just a boy from the school trying to see unclothed girls and the victim Barbara is in fact the sexy killer of the title, unafraid to show her constitution for blood and carnage.

It is a hokey beginning that the audience completely ate up. I will admit that I wasn’t necessarily impressed, it all seemed obvious although mildly humorous. We next arrive at the school and are introduced to Barbara’s clique of friends, an interesting mix of people just finding out about the murder of their fallen classmate. It is no match for the excitement about a costume party happening that evening, though, one which sees our killer dress up in goth and carry a see-through bag, of course containing her latest victim’s real decapitated head. Moving down the street she encounters a gentleman driving recklessly who proceeds to anger her, something you don’t want to do. She asks if he wants to dance, as in fight, and continues to twist his arm around, break his fingers, and shoving a sharp object through his hand to hold him to the car. It is all well and good until something happens that truly grabbed my attention … Barbara turns to the screen and talks directly to us, the audience, deciding where to begin her tale, the journey that led to that moment. We now are treated to flashbacks with the occasional return to her and her captive to narrate and keep us up to speed. I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for fourth wall breaking, it just makes the film experience that much more visceral, involving me on a personal level. I loved it in films like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and I definitely enjoyed its flair here.

At this point, one would figure that the slasher aspect will carry on until the end, deaths will pile up and laughs will be had. Instead, however, Tomás is brought into the fold, having just created a machine that will allow the user to see a deceased person’s final vision, most likely his murderer. Of course things can’t be that simple as we soon learn the injection used causes the rebirth of the victim into a zombie, coherent and aware of his previous life, fueling even more funny moments. The rest of the movie involves these plot threads as Barbara looks sexy and kills without remorse. It is a lot of laughs and a good time, especially with the uproarious crowd on hand trying to make the director and actress in attendance feel great, but it just isn’t all that special in my book. There is a wealth of gore-fests, playing on the irony and humor of graphic death, and Sexykiller doesn’t necessarily separate itself from the pack.

That said, though, there are many instances that I just loved. Sure the blood was entertaining, but it’s the jokes that landed for me. Paco Cabezas, the screenwriter, pulls no punches at mocking Hollywood or itself. One great instance is a short take down of Kate Winslet from Titanic. Barbara gives her a dressing down worthy of big laughs. Marcarena Gómez must be given credit for these types of scenes as well as the whole film, she is perfect for the role. Sure she goes too far sometimes and hams it up for the camera, but really, that’s exactly what an audience for this genre wants.

My favorite scene comes at another time, when Barbara and Tómas, a nice turn from César Camino, are on a date. His working with his machine in a morgue with dead bodies allows the conversation to veer to a point where she believes him to also be a killer. After seeing a dress she wanted on a woman going to the bathroom, Barbara follows her in and kills her, taking the dress and returning to her table. Tómas of course believes this to be a joke and when she says he should go for the tuxedo that just walked into the men’s room, he jumps at the chance to impress her. Once he enters the bathroom, the exchange between he and the man he is “supposed to kill” is absolutely hilarious. From the line of Tómas begging for the suit because he will never get a woman as hot as Barbara again to the question of whether they are both Trekkies, I couldn’t stop laughing. There are definite moments of brilliance, but I honestly can’t say I truly loved a film of this kind; there are just too many inherent problems with the genre and preconceptions creating a stigma of campy schlock. Better than it should have been, however, I will recommend it for a good time late night.

Sexykiller, morirás por ella 5/10

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photography:
courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival

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